Google Is Removing Author Photos from Search. Why?

Anyone who follows me knows that I have invested heavily in trying to be one of the foremost experts on the subject of Google Authorship and Google's overall desire to be able to identify authors as topical authorities.

So you might imagine that it came as a huge shock to me when I heard the announcement today that Google will be removing author photos entirely from Google search results. Some might expect I'd even consider it a blow. I don't, but more on that below.

In addition to removing the photos, they will also no longer show Google+ circle counts for Google Authorship authors. All that will remain is a small byline in the result. For more details see


+John Mueller has just added two comments to his original post about this:

"Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with Google+, nor with ads. This change only affects how authorship is shown in search (we continue to process & use authorship markup). "

"No, this is really just about the UI shown in seach. We’re always working on making Google Search better -- we made 890 updates in 2013 alone.  We’ve decided this new design works better, particularly on mobile."

**Back to the original post**

Cleaning Up the SERPs
Google's +John Mueller had the following to say about this change:

We've been doing lots of work to clean up the visual design of our search results, in particular creating a better mobile experience and a more consistent design across devices. As a part of this, we're simplifying the way authorship is shown in mobile and desktop search results, removing the profile photo and circle count. (Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.)

And that's why this doesn't come as a huge surprise to me. Google has been telling us (and signalling by much of what they've done) that the game for the future of search is now to be won or lost on the mobile playing field. But with the addition of a street band's worth of bells and whistles on the SERPs these past few years, they had set themselves up for a very wobbly and inconsistent search experience.

In short, mobile users want things simple and clean.

It's the same thing most of us do when we realize it's finally time to unclutter our houses. Ultimately, some things must go. You hold up each object and try to think of ways you could justify keeping it, but in the interest of the bigger project (a cleaner, less cluttered house), that old bowling trophy goes into the waste bin.

The End of Authorship? Hells No
That's how I think the decision process went down at Google. I think they understood the value of the author photos, but at the end of the day, whatever that value was, it was not greater than the value they'd gain by uncluttering their search pages.

Google Authorship continues. Qualifying authors will still get a byline on search results, so Google hasn't abandoned it. 

Besides, the bigger project here for Google I think is not author photos in search but the much ballyhooed but so far elusive "author rank," the ability to confidently determine who the content creators are in any given topic whom most people trust, and boost their content when appropriate. At SMX Advanced this month +Matt Cutts indicated that was still a priority, but was also still a long way off in being accomplished.

This is a long haul project folks. Don't head for the lifeboats every time Google makes a change.

Am I disappointed to see the photos going? I sure am. But such is the search business. Google isn't driven by whims or emotions. If they're doing this, they're doing it because their data and testing tells them it will be for the better in the long run.

The biggest downside I see is that probably now there will be less incentive for new people to use Authorship markup. But I have a feeling Google isn't worried about that. As I've been saying, they know that most people never would adopt it anyway. They've got to be working on the ability to identify authors and their content without depending on markup.

That's coming, but it will take a while. Stay tuned!

For another very thoughtful take on this development, I highly recommend this post by +Eli Fennell

#googleauthorship   #authorship   #googleauthorrank   #authorrank  

After reading through tons of comments overnight, I made a further long response. Since many people may not read through all the comments, I'm adding it here:

I want to address the idea that this is the abandonment or "the beginning of the end" for the concept of Authorship at Google. I just don't think so. Rather just like I think we are entering into the maturation phase of the place of Google+ in the Google universe, so we are now entering the maturation phase of Google Authorship and its related concepts. 

I believe that Google very much wants to pursue and eventually master the idea of author authority in search. It fits very well with their overall move into semantic search and "things over strings" or "entities over keywords." They know the future is in search becoming more and more like the way we make connections in the real world. And real life human personal authorities are at the top of the list of those connections.

But this is a much harder project than most people understand. You could really see Matt Cutts struggling to get that across to the audience at SMX Advanced when he was asked about author rank. He wouldn't outright deny that author data might be already in use in some small ways. (He confirmed to me in a tweet a few months ago that it can be a factor in qualifying for In Depth Articles, which I already knew.) But his major message was two things:

1. He really believes personally in the concept of author rank and would like to see it happen.

2. BUT the implementation of it as a direct ranking factor is still probably years off.

Here's why (from me, not Matt):

1. Google has realized that rel=author is at best a tiny first step toward understanding author authority. It has never been adopted by more than a tiny minority of the web's authors, and even many of them have implemented it incorrectly.

2. Therefore, author authority is going to have to be based on much more sophisticated means of machine-based identification and understanding. The rudimentary technologies to do those are already in existence, but they need far more refinement before Google will trust them to affect search results. 

3. Even if Google can better understand who the authors of content are and what the content is about (without depending on cooperative coding by those authors), there is still the whole question of what signals do you then use to assess which authors are more "authoritative" than others? Traditional link signals? A good start, but leaves a lot out of the equation. Social signals? Google has said again and again that social signals are a) hard to access for them in anything but Google+ and b) notoriously hard to interpret correctly.

So...I think Google remains committed to the whole project of identifying the most reputable and trusted authors on given topic areas. But I think it is a very long term project, and we are only at the beginning. Furthermore, Google Authorship has not been abandoned. It still exists, even if it now has a more reduced role in search results.
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